THE DON (A story) (2 of 2)

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[….continued from previous post.]

Clara switched on the downstairs lights. “Stay and have another cup of coffee,” she urged. Florence didn’t mind if she did. They sat at the kitchen table to consider what had just transpired.

Florence was not the ideal partner for this kind of analysis. Her lack of interest in style and grooming blinded her to the wife’s shortcomings in dress and makeup. Worse, she didn’t find Couteau as attractive as Clara did; his unfavorable report on her work in the Shakespeare seminar had jeopardized her scholarship and she’d had to write two more long papers over the summer to get it reinstated, understandably weakening her susceptibility to his charms. “It can’t be easy being his wife,” she observed. “I bet he’s a difficult man to live with.” Also she didn’t think his drinking out of Clara’s glass was going to lead to anything. She agreed it wasn’t what the typical don would do with the typical donnee’s wine glass, and further agreed he likely found Clara attractive, especially in that sophisticated corduroy outfit, or he wouldn’t have done it. That said, she was inclined to view the sip of wine as an error of judgment.

Here, Clara had to concede, Florence was the expert. Sloven or no, she had lost her virginity to a much older man almost as soon as she’d arrived at college three years before. Clara’s knowledge of her deflowering hardly constituted a confidence; she’d told at least six other people, all of whom had thoroughly discussed it with one another. He’d done it on the floor of his 57th Street art gallery, beneath a Picasso, the Saturday she went to New York to apply for a weekend job. It turned out there was no job. Just instant mutual attraction and a long affair. Even now they still connected from time to time, if their respective schedules permitted. (She checked her diaphragm in a Grand Central locker whenever she went home on school breaks.) Clearly her views on Clara’s future with their mutual don were entitled to deference.

“Look,” she said, “it was only your glass. If he really wanted to go to bed with you, why didn’t he kiss the back of your neck, or put his arm around your waist, or his hand on your tit? He could have done any or all of that while the two of you were looking out that damn window for so long.”

“No, he couldn’t,” Clara insisted. “You were there.”

“He didn’t care about me being there or he wouldn’t have done the thing with the glass. Besides,” she added, “you didn’t exactly encourage him. If you wanted to make something of it, why didn’t you turn around? You just stood there, for God’s sake. He must have thought you’d report him if he went further!”

So now it was Clara’s fault. “You really think nothing more is going to happen?”

“Not before he gets back to school,” opined this woman of the world who owned a diaphragm. “What do you expect him to do? Write you incriminating love letters? Call you on the house phone and explain to someone else why he needs to speak to you?”

“Then what can I do?”

Florence was buttoning her coat to get back to her own off-campus house. Behind as usual, she needed the Thanksgiving break to catch up on assigned reading. “Invite him over to lunch next term, after he’s back. Make hamburgers or something. This is a neat house for stuff like that. You could even serve it in your room. And see what happens then.”

Clara paced restlessly after she had left. Did she really want to steal him away from the wife in socks and become the wife herself – stepmother to his unseen little girl and slavey in his kitchen? Not really. But the delicious unhappiness of an affair with a married faculty member who couldn’t resist her: how could she not yield? Was it too dangerous? Would it jeopardize her degree? What should she do? What could she do? If only it had been a regular don-donnee dinner, without any of these troubling problems! She wished she’d eaten more of the wife’s cooking.

Taking Florence’s advice, Clara invited Couteau to lunch a few days before spring break. He seemed surprised, but accepted. In town, she bought a pound of freshly ground round, lettuce, tomatoes, ketchup, and also a few hard rolls in case he needed bread. Everyone else in the house agreed to stay away for this momentous occasion. Clara cleared off her desk, borrowed a second desk chair from another room and laid out two place settings, napkins, salt and pepper, the ketchup bottle, a basket of the rolls and two glasses. Couteau arrived just as the two half-pound patties of ground round were nearing completion in the frying pan. (A half-pound was what Clara’s mother had always made for her father.) Clara slid the meat onto plates already decorated with lettuce and tomato slices, and led Couteau up the stairs, each of them carrying a plate and an eight-ounce bottle of Coca-Cola. When he saw they were to eat in her room he hesitated momentarily, but then courageously crossed the threshold. Clara left the door open, to reassure him. “Where is everybody?” he asked.

“Why, at lunch!” she laughed gaily.

It was an awkward meal. Clara asked if the meat was sufficiently well done. He said yes, it was very good but a lot of food. Flushing with embarrassment, Clara said she thought that was the amount men ate. (This did not explain why she too had half a pound on her plate.) He said he had a class to teach that afternoon and would fall asleep if he ate it all. Hurriedly, she changed the subject and asked about his wife, his child. He said they were fine. He asked what she thought she might want to do next year. If she were applying to graduate school, he’d be glad to write recommendations, her last paper was really remarkable. She said she was putting grad school on the back burner for a while to see what real life was like. He nodded, and pushed his plate away. Half the hamburger was still there. Clara had finished all hers. He didn’t drink from her glass. He didn’t drink from his own glass either. Maybe he didn’t like Coca-Cola? He thanked her for the home-cooked lunch and got up to go. “We’ll have to do this again,” Clara said. “When you have more time.”

“When do I have more time?” he asked pleasantly.

As soon as he was out the front door, she hurried back upstairs. Damn him. Had he forgotten Thanksgiving, the heavy breathing, the sip of wine? And if he was regretting all that, if he had realized in the interim that a love between them could only come to naught, why did he agree to come to lunch and put her to all this trouble? He hadn’t even offered to help take everything downstairs! Well, of course not, why would he? That slavey of a wife did everything for him. She poured ketchup on the remains of his ground round and ate it angrily before stacking the plates. She had to make two trips because she had no tray, and had just managed to finish cleaning everything up, including the greasy frying pan, when some of her housemates returned from their own lunch in the dining room. “How was it?” they asked, curiously. They didn’t know about the heavy breathing and sip of wine.

“I’m certainly not doing that again,” Clara said, loss and indigestion throbbing in her midsection.

“Bad, huh?”

“Pretty awful.” She laughed hollowly. “And I thought I was being so nice. It just goes to show….”

 

And then it was really over. Parents began arriving for the commencement dinner. They sat on folding chairs on the small lawn in front of Clara’s off-campus house and exchanged polite remarks while waiting for it to be dinnertime. Photos were snapped. Couteau came looking for Clara in the dining room. How gracious he was to her parents, whose conventional views of life he had worked so hard, with only partial success, to eradicate in Clara. Although he sat at their table through the appetizer and entrée, chatting lightly of this and that while she hoped for a private look in her direction, he excused himself before dessert to join Florence and her parents at another table.

Following dessert and coffee Clara’s parents left too – because, said her father, it was a long drive home and they would have to get up early for commencement at eleven. Dutifully she walked them to their new Pontiac and then hurried back to the dining room. By then the dinner was breaking up. Some of the other parents were now calling taxis to go into town for drinks with each other. Clara made her way around clusters of people she didn’t know, past deserted tables littered with dirty cups and crumpled napkins, looking for Florence and Couteau. “Oh, they’ve left,” someone told her. “Her parents weren’t able to come after all, so he took her into town to the Spoon.” The Greasy Spoon was a drinking hangout. Clara had never in all her four college years been there. He took her? On the very last evening they could ever have together? Sloppy disheveled her? She swiped the last four brownies from a tray near the kitchen, wrapped them in two napkins and took them back to her room, where she ate them methodically at the desk which was no longer her desk, brown crumbs falling on her new yellow cotton dress.

The next morning the sun shone. Alphabetically by last name, the graduates lined up in black caps and gowns rented for the occasion, to sit in the first two long rows of folding chairs arranged on the broad front lawn of the administration building. Florence was two seats away. Clara leaned over the girl between them and poked her. She turned. “What happened at the Spoon last night?” Clara whispered.

“Nothing,” Florence whispered back. “He drank a lot. He looked pretty drunk by the time the place closed.”

“And then?”

“What then? I went back to my room.”

“And him?”

“He went home. At least he said he was going to.”

The girl sitting patiently between them suddenly made shushing noises. The faculty, also in caps and gowns, were filing solemnly out of the building to sit on a dais set up on the front portico. Ah, there was the college president, followed by the dean. Clara tried to make out Couteau under one of the black caps. Sour brownie rose up in her mouth, the taste of failure and gastric reflux. She swallowed hard and choked everything down, stomach acid burning her throat. A name was called, a diploma presented, hands shaken. She heard clapping from parents, families and friends of others coming from the seats on the grass in the rows and rows behind her. Another name. And another. The clapping grew slightly less enthusiastic. Too many names. It seemed to go very fast all the same. Soon she tensed. There. Her name. Up she went. Diploma. Handshake. A scattering of claps.

Afterwards there was some milling around, but everyone was anxious to get on the road. Couteau approached. Stay in touch, he said. She nodded. He walked away, out of her life. A few of the others from her senior house waved to her. Goodbye, goodbye. Stay in touch. She nodded again. You too. It was hard to say more without crying.

 

Clara kept the Neilson and Hill, but although Couteau had covered only eight of the plays in class, she never again opened it to read another. At first she feared she wouldn’t be able to duplicate her interpretive success with All’s Well That Ends Well. Later, dipping into Shakespeare slipped further and further down her to-do list. But when she was sixty, her two children grown and gone from the nest, her career as a patent lawyer settling into four unpressured days a week at a small boutique firm, she began to look back at her life and it crossed her mind she’d like to see Couteau again before he died.

Having obtained his present address and telephone number from the college and made arrangements for a visit, she discovered he now lived in a modest two-story house at the top of a very steep hill in Kerhonkson, a small town in the Catskills. Margaret Couteau opened the door with a warm smile. “He’ll be so glad you came,” she said. Although quite wrinkled, she otherwise hadn’t changed much, except for white hair and the extremely thick cataract lenses in her glasses that enormously enlarged her eyes.

Couteau, heavier and looking much older than his wife, sat hunched sourly in an easy chair before a television news channel with the volume turned up high.  Two canes leaned against the chair. He made no effort to get up, but did switch off the television with a remote. Then he stared at Clara for a moment, as if unsure of who she was, before extending a cold gnarled hand.

“His arthritis is very bad,” explained Margaret.

“Hello, Charles,” said Clara, as cheerfully as she could. “You do remember me, don’t you? Clara? From the class of ’52?

He continued to stare. “I remember you used to be angular and sharp,” he snapped suddenly. “What happened?”

Clara said nothing. It had been forty years. I was only angular and sharp for about two weeks as an entering freshman, she thought. Is it my mind he’s remembering?

“Margaret says you’re some kind of big shot lawyer now. So you sold out too.  Like most of the others.”

They had lunch in the adjoining kitchen. He needed the two canes to maneuver himself to the table. It was fillet of sole, peas and carrots. Clara noticed Margaret had actually shelled fresh peas and scraped fresh carrots. Couteau complained the carrots weren’t sweet enough. Clara had brought a good Bordeaux and the most expensive single malt Scotch she could find in her local liquor store. He nodded when Margaret showed him the bottles, but otherwise took no notice. When he had finished eating, he rose with help and stumbled painfully away for a nap on a sleeper sofa in the living room. “He can’t get up the stairs anymore,” explained Margaret when he was out of earshot. “He has to live down here now. We put in a downstairs bathroom.”

Clara helped her clear, wash up and dry. There was no dishwasher. Then they sat down at the kitchen table again. “This must be very hard for you,” said Clara. “Alone here at the top of a mountain. How do you manage?”

It seems Margaret did all the driving up and down – to get groceries, reach the drugstore, fill the tank of their fifteen-year-old Buick. Genevieve, the daughter, lived with another lesbian woman in Western Massachusetts. She did speak with her mother every week, so there was that. “But Charles is very disappointed Genevieve turned out the way she did,” said Margaret. “He feels it was some kind of failure. Unnatural, he calls it. He doesn’t want to talk to her when she calls.”

“How can that be?” exclaimed Clara. “His views about how to live were so liberating!”

“I don’t know about that,” said Margaret. “Charles was always quite a conventional man. He even made me stop working after we married. He didn’t think a wife should go out to earn money. You can see where that landed us.”  Then she noticed the expression on Clara’s face. “He did talk a good game, though,” she added kindly. “You weren’t the only student who found him inspiring.”

“You’ve got to get off this hill,” said Clara. “How much longer can you go on like this?” She wasn’t just thinking of the cataracts.

“Tell that to Charles.”

Couteau woke up in time to see Clara leave. He appeared somewhat anxious for her to be out of the house so he could turn on the television again. There was a program he wanted to watch. Only Margaret seemed sad to see her go. Before she came, Clara had imagined she might make a little joke about that sip of wine on Thanksgiving Day so long ago. All things considered, it was just as well she hadn’t.

 

 

THE DON (A Story) (1 of 2)

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[This story continues in the following post. Ideally, it should be read in one gulp. But a 5,000+ word post  might be pushing my luck.]

Professor Charles Couteau taught the full year Shakespeare seminar at the small experimental college Clara attended. It was tough to get in – especially as he hand-picked the lucky twelve or thirteen juniors and seniors who made it. However, Clara had never worried. As a freshman, she’d done extremely well in his Exploratory Literature course, which he informally called “Meeting the Serpent.” That in itself, she felt, made her a sure thing for the Shakespeare. In fact, she had sobbed in vexation when he refused to let her into it as a sophomore. To ease the year of separation until she became eligible as a junior, she asked him to be her don, a sort of in loco parentis figure established by the college to meet with each student for half an hour or so every other week and keep an eye on how things were going. He seemed pleased at the invitation. Her heart did a little flip-flop of happiness when he accepted.

Judging by the dates of his degrees from Columbia listed in the college catalogue, Couteau was about twenty years older than Clara. He was tall, broad-shouldered, had brush-cut red hair and blue-green eyes, wore rimless glasses, and chain-smoked Lucky Strikes with a slightly shaky freckled hand, exhaling the smoke with audible force. Once he mentioned he had played college football. And he was knowledgeable about so much that wasn’t just literature. The week they discussed Malraux’s Man’s Fate (in translation), Clara confided to her journal she sometimes wished she could be crushed in Couteau’s tweedy arms. Unfortunately he was married, to a woman no student had ever seen on campus, and had a three-year-old daughter named Genevieve.

The Shakespeare, when she was finally allowed to register for it, was no walk in the park. It met once a week for an hour and a half around an oval table where, under Couteau’s Socratic guidance, Clara and ten other young women, smoking heavily, struggled for a whole academic year to identify and analyze the social and psychological underpinnings of the important plays. Although campus gossip had it Couteau was a Marxist, that did not seem relevant to his obfuscations. Instead, what slowly filled the margins of Clara’s heavy Neilson and Hill Complete Plays and Poems of William Shakespeare were despairing pencilled notes about the terms of the culture and dichotomy. She scribbled comments about the impossibility of the human. Many years later, opening the Neilson and Hill, she would also find, in her own college handwriting: Hamlet ½ god, ½ man; Claudius ½ man, ½ fiend; Laertes ½ god, ½ fiend – and even then would have no idea what that had meant. Disjointed notes at the bottom of the last page of The Tempest read: Prospero induces freedom by being conscious of the human limitation. Exists only in relationships with other men. Absolute freedom not freedom. Personal immediate sense of love childish. Why had she written this? Because they were Couteau’s words, as nearly as she could reproduce them.

The less she was able to grasp what Couteau’s perceptions had to do with the stories so familiar to her since childhood from Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare, the more she admired him. During one of their don-donnee conferences, she declared he should write a book. He smiled his adorable crooked smile. He had begun several times, he admitted. Then life intervened. The unfinished pages were in a drawer.

“Life?” asked Clara.

“Genevieve,” he replied.

Clara became bolder: “Lots of writers have babies. Your wife should encourage you! Doesn’t she understand how much you have to offer?”

The blue-green eyes looked deep into hers for a glorious moment. Then he asked how her term paper on Othello was coming along.

Clara was a fluent writer, but when she finally managed to disgorge the Othello paper just before Christmas it was apparently a disappointment. Couteau returned it with only two “Good!”s in the margins and many more “Develop!”s. Worse, there was no appreciative comment at the top, where at more conventional colleges, a grade might have appeared. She must have not yet sufficiently internalized his analytic vocabulary. As if to punish herself for this failure of devotion, she broke up with her long-time boyfriend during the holiday vacation. Till recently he had been enrolled at a university a safe half-continent away; now finally graduated, he was back in the East demanding payback for his two years of patient fidelity. Compared to Couteau, his personal immediate sense of love was so childish! She therefore had no dates at all during the whole ten days, not even on New Year’s Eve, which made it a relief to return in January to the thickets of iambic pentameter awaiting her in Neilson and Hill.

Couteau had news: he had bought a Victorian house in Bedford. It cost a pretty penny, and was mortgaged to the hilt, but it sat on four acres of land! His domain! He was practically chortling. They’d be moving in over the summer, after certain necessary repairs had been made. Then he’d have the whole following semester to settle in: he was taking a one-term sabbatical.

Her senior year, and he would be away for half of it! “Doesn’t all this lord of the manor stuff undercut your values?” Clara inquired acidly. An apartment dweller all her life, she was unable to share his enthusiasm for wide open spaces.

“How is that?” he asked. “I love uncultivated land in its natural state. The more of it around me the better. Then no one can box me in.”

It’s possible that by May, Clara finally figured out what Couteau wanted to see in a Shakespeare term paper. It’s also possible that the intellectual dichotomy between glorying in ownership of four acres and a big old house on the one hand and, on the other hand, finding the terms of the culture in every Shakespeare play made it impossible to be fully human — had simply eviscerated Couteau’s interpretive standards. Whatever the reason, he could not have written a better comment about her second term paper, on All’s Well That Ends Well:

This is one of the smoothest and tightest jobs I have ever read. “Words and thought” do match, and “feeling,” form and content too. You have made it sound like a fascinating novelette, with no sacrifice of interpretation.

Congratulations! Publish it.

Oh joy! She read these intoxicating words at home, where he had mailed the paper after the school year was over. Of course, she wrote to thank him. He replied that she deserved it. He signed his note “Charles.”

In early November of Clara’s senior year, Couteau telephoned the college switchboard to invite her and his other senior donnee to his new house in Bedford for Thanksgiving. Apprehensively, Clara opened the closet in the off-campus house where she was now living and was glad to discover her green corduroy outfit with full skirt and paisley blouse still fit, sort of, although it had been bought three years before. She did have a few of the freshman fifteen remaining on her hips, and there was a little bulge in her stomach especially evident in profile. But after she moved the waistband hook as far as possible, the bulge was less noticeable. If she ate very little in the week left before Thanksgiving, perhaps it would disappear altogether.

Couteau was picking them up in his car because the trains from their college town to Bedford didn’t run often enough on holidays. Florence, the other donnee, showed up at Clara’s house at the appointed time. Clara knew her but not well; she was rather messy and disorganized. Her preparations for this special occasion seemed to have been minimal: she had unearthed a respectably clean skirt and shapeless sweater, bleached the dark hairs on her upper lip yellow, and applied an unbecomingly purple shade of lipstick. Clara said she looked nice. She said Clara looked elegant and no, not fat at all. Then there was honking from the street, so they bundled up, hurried out, and climbed into the back seat. All the way to Bedford Clara wished she had thought quickly enough to sit in front next to Couteau.

They hadn’t seen him since the end of May. He seemed another man now, relaxed and jovial, as if they hadn’t been his student donnees. While he drove, he told amusing stories about moving into the new house. Florence supplied most of the necessary “And then what?”s while Clara gazed at the back of his neck and tried to decide how she would feel if he fell in love with her. Maybe twenty years was too big an age difference. Although that was exactly what made it so exciting to contemplate.

Too soon they arrived. There was much wiping of feet on the doormat and taking off coats in the front hall. His thin wife came out to greet them, flushed from kitchen heat, carrying a wooden spoon and dressed in a shabby sweater and baggy skirt around which she had wrapped an apron with food stains on it. Margaret was her name. Clara had been speculating about this wife for over three years and was pleasantly gratified to see how far she had, in the words of the ladies’ magazines to which Clara’s mother subscribed, “let herself go.” She wore socks. She hadn’t shaved her legs. Had she cut her hair herself? And no makeup at all: how did she expect to keep him, such a robust man in the prime of life? Clara began to feel very attractive.

The wife returned to her kitchen; Clara and Florence were ushered into the living room. There Couteau poured red wine into three glasses waiting on a tray. No, Margaret would not be joining them; she was still attending to the turkey and and feeding their little girl in the kitchen. Would his little girl appear? Perhaps later, briefly. He didn’t believe small children should have a role at adult social gatherings. There was chat about the college; Couteau shared some confidences about inter-faculty politics. Clara sipped carefully. (How many calories in a glass of red wine?) They toured the ground floor of the house, glasses in hand, while Clara admired this and that because it was clear he was expecting it. The new house had very little furniture in it. Faculty salaries, he explained with a rueful grin. They returned to the living room to stand by a picture window with a panoramic view of his property.

Then it happened. He put his empty glass down on the mantelpiece and came behind Clara. She sensed him close, his body not quite touching hers but almost. He stood perfectly still. She stood perfectly still. She could hear his breathing, feel his exhalations on her neck. He said something about the trees in the distance. Mmm, she agreed, hardly daring to breathe herself. He reached for her glass, took it from her hand, sipped from it, and gave it back to her. He breathed heavily again, two or three times. She sipped from the glass too. From the same place his lips had been. Oh, oh, was she trembling? He mentioned something else about the trees. Was she supposed to turn around? If she did, her breasts would brush against him. Better not. Let him make the next move.

“Dinner must be nearly ready,” he said. “Let’s go find out.” He walked away. Clara looked at Florence. She had seen it all. But there was no time for discussion; dinner was indeed ready. Still shaking, Clara headed to the kitchen offering to help; the wife shooed her away. “No, no, you’re here as a guest,” she insisted. Clara did notice Couteau didn’t get up to help her carry the heavy platters laden with food from the kitchen, but decided it would have been awkward for him to serve his own students. The wife sat down to her own plate only when all the others had been served.

It was a huge, traditional Thanksgiving dinner, prepared from scratch. After turkey noodle soup, there were freshly baked Parker House rolls with pats of butter; salad with homemade “Russian” dressing; a large beautifully browned bird with chestnut stuffing and sherry gravy; candied sweet potatoes, creamed onions, buttered brussels sprouts; and for dessert two kinds of homemade pie – apple and pecan – with store-bought ice cream on top, followed by coffee and brandy. “This must have taken you days,” said Clara. The wife shrugged. “I like to cook. And now we’ll have enough leftovers for quite a while.”

“She is a good cook,” said Couteau.

How Clara would have loved to eat it all! But what if she were on the threshold of romance and might soon need to be naked with her lover? She sipped a little soup, avoiding the noodles, teased the lettuce out from under its generous layer of dressing, ate some sprouts and two thin slices of white meat without gravy, had one taste of the candied sweet potatoes and passed on everything else. Florence was stuffing herself like a pig. Clara had brought saccharin tablets to the table in her skirt pocket and surreptitiously dropped one into her coffee cup. She did permit herself real cream in the coffee because she didn’t want to make trouble by asking for milk. The wife rejected help with clearing, too. “It’s easier by myself,” she said. “I’m so glad you could come. It means a lot to him to be able to do this for his students.”

Suddenly the visit was over. If they left now, Couteau said, they could catch one of the few holiday trains back to the college. He hurried them into their coats and into his car. They reached the station just in time. No meaningful goodbyes. No tender pressure of the hand. “See you next semester,” he said cheerfully. “Be good.” A taxi was waiting at the college station. And then they were back at Clara’s off-campus doorstep. The house was dark. Everyone else was away.

Clara switched on the downstairs lights. “Stay and have another cup of coffee,” she urged. Florence didn’t mind if she did. They sat at the kitchen table to consider what had just transpired.

[To be continued…]

 

 

 

FACT OR FICTION?

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Readers often wonder how much of a novel, novella or short story comes from the writer’s own life and how much is made up. Some literary critics (and some biographers) have built an entire career on teasing from literary texts published as fiction what may have really happened and what likely didn’t. Other critics — and probably all writers — maintain the fact-or-fiction question doesn’t matter because after the writing leaves the writer, it must stand on its own.

As a would-be writer, and certainly as a nearly life-long reader, I don’t think the question is worth pursuing.  What did or did not happen in “real life” is irrelevant to the merit,  or lack of it, of the completed literary work. Anyone whose reading of what a writer publishes is driven by prurient interest in the details of the writer’s life is not far removed from the reader of fanzines and other sources of celebrity gossip.  Which is not to say that a taste for gossip isn’t a  widespread human failing, shared by me, but should not be confused with the experience of reading literature.

What’s more, even where the published work bears no apparent surface resemblance to what is known of a writer’s life, you can rest assured that every writer who ever lived has in one way or another cannibalized his (or her) own experience of living for material.  Nothing is safe from the writer, not even the writer!  Sometimes, it’s emotional experience — translated, for example, into science-fiction, or fantasy, or “post-modernism” of some kind, or innovative structure.  Sometimes, apparently more realistically, it’s a character or characters modeled either on the writer, or someone the writer knows or has heard of.  But — and this is the important part — something always happens to that lived experience in the process of putting it on the printed or digital fictional page, and what that something is makes all the difference.

(Parenthetically, I would go further yet and assert that even when writers compose allegedly factual memoir or autobiography, or when non-writers explain to themselves in private the important events in their lives, the accounts can never be fully factual accounts of “real life.”  They are how we see things, how we justify to ourselves what happened. They are the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves so that we can keep on living. But did they really happen that way?  Who’s to say?)

Now back to writers. When in “Portnoy’s Complaint,” teen-age Alexander Portnoy comes home from school and twice that day has the liver he finds in the refrigerator:  once,  raw, behind a closed door in the bathroom and again, cooked, on his plate for dinner — does it matter to the gestalt of the book whether Philip Roth ever himself jerked off with raw liver when he was a teen-age boy in Newark, New Jersey?

Roth, of course, is our century’s champion creator of what appear to be fictional alter egos.  “Portnoy” was his fourth book, relatively early in his career.  “Deception,” his eighteenth book, is a series of pre- and post-coital conversations over several years between two adulterous lovers (with a few other conversations interspersed). The man is “Philip,” a writer of novels who spends half the year in London (as did Roth for many years while living with Claire Bloom). The woman in “Deception” is English, and  nameless. The conversations, and the coitus, take place in “Philip’s” London writing studio, on a mat where at other times he does back exercises.

At some point between the earlier conversations and the last one in the book, “Philip” has written and published a novel in which the lover, and then wife, of a man named Zuckerman is an Englishwoman. Non-Roth readers should know that Nathan Zuckerman, who has many of Roth’s characteristics, had already appeared in several Roth novels prior to “The CounterLife,” a novel with many of the characteristics of the novel that “Philip” has just published in “Deception.” “The CounterLife” was Roth’s second book before “Deception.”  If it isn’t already too confusing, I might point out that Peter Tarnopol, another Roth fictional alter ego, wrote two stories about Zuckerman in Roth’s “My Life As A Man” before Zuckerman got to be the central figure in novels apparently written by Roth. (With Tarnopol’s help?)

The Englishwoman in “Deception” is upset that “Philip,” she thinks, has written about her in his recently published novel. I will leave you with their conversation, which is obviously much better than anything I could add at this time to the topic under discussion.  (It’s on the second to last page of “Deception.”)  I love the last line.

“….I object greatly to this taking people’s lives and putting them into fiction.  And then being a famous author who resents critics for saying he doesn’t make things up.”

“Because you had a baby doesn’t mean I didn’t make up a baby; because you’re you doesn’t mean I didn’t make you up.”

“I also exist.”

“Also. You also exist and also I made you up.  ‘Also’ is a good word to remember. You also don’t exist as only you.”

“I certainly don’t anymore.”

“You never did. As I made you up, you never existed.”

“Then who was that in your studio with my legs over your shoulders?”

Res ipsa loquitur.  (The thing speaks for itself.)  Which has nothing — and of course everything — to do with the matter.

ANOTHER STORY, VERY SHORT

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The high functioning daughter is on the phone.  What a nice surprise.  “We’ve just rented a beach house for next August,” says the daughter.  “You’ll have to come out for a weekend. The kids will be back from day camp then.  And Bob and I will both have off.”

It’s only October. Such closely scheduled lives. But the mother knows she can’t say that. “Oh, lovely,” she replies. “Something to look forward to.”

Christmas and New Year’s come and go. Easter rolls around. The mother begins really thinking about summer, even though it’s still a few months off. She hardly ever sees these three grandchildren now they’re all in school and then rushing to after-school sports, music lessons and playdates. Not to mention the daughter, rapidly advancing in her architectural firm.  At least those are the excuses, when she brings it up.

“Which weekend should I plan on coming out?” she asks the daughter carefully at a dinner given by her son-in-law’s mother.

The daughter’s face assumes a familiar unpleasant expression, as if the mother’s question were entirely out of line. “No weekend, actually. There are none left. We owe such a lot of people. We’ve invited too many as it is.”

Did her daughter actually forget the October invitation? Or had it become inconvenient?  “I thought it was a big house,” says the mother, even now not having learned from experience. “I could also come during the week.” She hates herself for adding that.  For having to beg.

The daughter shakes her head decisively. “Not such a big house. No, it would just be too awkward. And we need the weekdays to recover from the guests.”  She offers a tight smile, suggesting that what she’d just said should be thought amusing.

The mother perseveres. “So does that mean I won’t be seeing you at all this summer?”  It sounds better for “you” to be taken as plural but right now she really means “you” singular — the “you” who used to be her difficult, brilliant much-loved baby girl.

“Looks like it,” says the daughter.  “There’s a lot going on. Maybe we can find a time in the fall. I’ll have to check with Bob.”

Why should she be surprised? For a long time, she’s been on tenterhooks with this daughter anyway. Should she have nailed down an August weekend for herself last October? Sent a confirming email ten months ahead? Who does such things with family? It’s been explained to her by others (counselor, family doctor, close woman friend) that the daughter may not be able to help it;  with this kind of disorder, she probably doesn’t even understand how it makes the mother feel. It’s not intentional. She shouldn’t take it personally.

The mother always nods. Easy for them to say.

It’s not their daughter, she thinks.  Not their heart that hurts.

ENOUGH CLEANING UP!

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Not one to shy away from admiring my own words, I’ve probably already spent far too much time combing through the fourteen months of archived stuff on TGOB to pull out the pieces I like best and make them accessible from the home page.

They’re now over on the left of the screen in three categories of “Pages” — Fiction, Selected Non-Fiction, and Selected Essays and Other Short Pieces.  I have no idea whether blog readers ever go exploring the underbrush, but if anyone has such an inclination, now it’s easy.  Pick a title on any of those three pages and click it.  Voila!  A new piece to read.  (Or re-read, as the case may be.)  They’re not in any particular order, so you can start anywhere.  Or decide not to start at all, and wait for something new.

Which should be coming up any day now. Just give me a breather.  I hate housework almost more than anything, and this job was no exception. I’m so glad it’s done.  Tell me what you think….

FIRST HUSBAND (II of II)

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[A story continued from previous post.]

Inertia won out. It was easier, and at least marginally more interesting, for Millie to resume her thrice-weekly meetings with Richard when he returned a divorced man than not to. Another thing: she had begun to miss the sex. While he was gone, she found herself leaning forward with spread-apart thighs and rubbing herself back and forth on the Chevrolet seat at red lights.

It was less easy to fool her mother.

“Where are you going?”

“Out.”

“With whom?”

“Friends.”

“What friends? April?”

“Other friends.”

“So what time will you be back?”

“Late. Don’t wait up.”

At least she always made sure to drag herself out of the Murphy bed by one o’clock or so, pull on her clothes and drive home, so that she should be in her own bed when her mother got up to bring in the morning paper. Which was something. (And not easy.) But not enough of a something to warm up the chill that was enveloping the parental breakfast table and the many dinners a week she still ate at home.

For his part, Richard objected to her not spending the night. He thought she should rent a furnished studio apartment of her own. She could afford it now that she was a copywriter, he said. It would also solve her mother problem. Why was a grown woman  — was that what she was, a “grown woman?” — still living with her parents? Dutifully, she found a vacancy in a decent-looking building and put down a $55 payment for March. The apartment was just like his, Murphy bed and all. But whenever she thought of living by herself in that gloomy, ill-lit and transient accommodation, soon to be hers, she felt only fear.

February inched along. She made no preparations for the move or for explaining her imminent departure to the two people who cared about her so much. Just before the end of the month, she summoned up courage to confess. Her hitherto gentle and forbearing mother spoke sternly. Millie was on the verge of an irrevocably awful act. There were only two reasons an unmarried girl left her parents’ home: Either she was going to do something very bad she had to hide from her family — here her mother paused meaningfully — or else she was such an unpleasant and difficult person even her own flesh and blood could no longer bear to live with her!

Head pounding with tension and guilt, Millie knew this was both nonsense and true. Did she really want to move out? Of course not. She just wanted everything to be all right. She began to cry. Her mother soothed her. In the end, she told Richard she couldn’t bring herself to hurt her mother, which was a kind of lie but not entirely.

“So there goes $55,” said Richard.

Why should he care? She was the one who had lost it. What a failure she was!  One day when she knew he had morning classes, she let herself into his studio with the key he had given her and called in sick at work. Then she sobbed aloud, hugging herself on the shabby green sofa against the grimy window. There was very little comfort in the apartment when Richard wasn’t in it. After a while, she got up, locked the door, and drove to a doughnut shop, where she bought six jumbo doughnuts with yellow custard filling and chocolate icing, plus a quart carton of milk. Parked in a neighborhood several miles away where no one could possibly recognize her, she methodically munched her way through all six doughnuts, washing them down at intervals with gulps of milk from the waxy triangular opening in the carton.

When she was done, she felt very full and slightly nauseous, but not enough to throw up. She unbuttoned the waistband of her skirt, stuffed the debris back into the empty bag, which she left under her car before pulling away from the curb, and drove home. She told her mother she had felt ill at work and needed to lie down. Drugged with starch, she fell asleep at once. Next morning she had a terrible taste in her mouth, but it passed.

“It’s always darkest before the dawn,” said April.

“Oh, April,” Millie exclaimed. “You’re my only friend. What would I do without you?” Actually, Millie didn’t have a very high opinion of April. No gumption, no ambition. Ironing her cotton blouses night after night. What did she know about life?

But it soon began to look as if April might be right.

Millie’s mother decided to look for a job herself. She made it known at the breakfast table. Now that Millie’s father had a broker’s license and was selling real estate days, evenings, weekends, and Millie was working and (she added darkly) doing who knew what else — what was there for her at home all alone? Back in New York, she had once sold gloves at Lord & Taylor during the Christmas season. Maybe she could find something like that downtown.

“Good, that’s good, Bubi,” said Millie’s father, turning a page of the newspaper and getting butter on it. “It doesn’t hurt to look.”

Her Russian accent and good taste in dress put Millie’s mother on the floor of the Arts and Gifts Department of Robinson’s within a week. She reported back proudly to Millie and Millie’s father that Mr. Wonderly, the buyer, had told her she was charming and that customers were going to love her. After that, she rose before dawn every morning to take the curlers out of her hair, carefully apply makeup, and leave breakfast on the table for Millie’s father before she ran for the downtown bus. (She wanted to get in early to help Mr. Wonderly arrange the floor and make sure her sales book was in order before the store opened.) At night, she was tired. Millie could count on an announcement to that effect as soon as she walked in the door, always later than Millie herself. (Well of course, thought Millie; what did she expect, standing on her feet all day?) Then she would hurry to change out of her good clothes into a housedress and get some food on the table — sometimes a warmed-up casserole she had prepared the previous Sunday but more and more often something she had recently discovered in Ralph’s called a “TV dinner,” which you could defrost in the oven and eat right out of its own aluminum tray and which meant very little washing up.

Millie’s father was not entirely pleased with these developments. There was occasionally some parental bickering about Millie’s mother’s new life. But the mournful looks and sighs Millie’s mother had previously lavished upon Millie disappeared. Her head was now full of Mr. Wonderly and the sometimes famous clients who sought her assistance in selecting exclusive gifts for friends and dear ones. One afternoon she helped Rita Hayworth choose a vase. She was so gracious, said Millie’s mother. Millie knew she should be relieved, but she sometimes missed the days, not so long ago, when her mother was always worrying about her. It often seemed as if no one cared what she was doing anymore. Except Richard.

Richard definitely cared. He thought she shouldn’t be wasting her talents writing about navy rayon crepe dresses. (“Navy’s in town!”) Or little fur capelets. (“Take a stole to heart!”) He told her about teaching assistantships. She hadn’t even known they existed. Why, if she got one it would pay enough for her to go to graduate school, maybe even go far away. He also generously offered to write a letter of recommendation. As her instructor, of course. So it was really lucky she hadn’t been able to give him up. And wouldn’t her going back East for a doctorate be the perfect bittersweet ending for what they had had together!

Beach weather arrived. Every weekend, they drove out to Santa Monica, or sometimes Venice, and spent whole glorious days walking up and down in the surf and splashing in the sparkling water. She tanned easily and smoothly; her hair bleached in the sun and salt until she was almost a California blonde. Richard taught her how to get far enough out to turn her back and jump up just as a big wave was about to break so that she could ride it almost back to shore. The other thing she loved was to stand with Richard where the water came up to his chest, put her arms around his neck and wrap her legs around him. The water helped him support her bottom, so they could kiss like that for a long time, their bodies rubbing wet against each other, their mouths salty and their eyes laughing at each other.  Sometimes other people in the water looked at them, even though they couldn’t really see what was going on beneath the surface. Millie liked that, too.

After the beach, they would come back to the studio apartment and shower. Then she would make supper on his two-burner hotplate. She had it down to a science. A skirt steak in the frying pan on one burner, frozen vegetables (usually string beans) in the sauce pan on the other burner. And for dessert, farmer cheese mashed with diet grape jelly (so that it tasted like cheese cake without crust) and then patted into little custard cups. He thought she was a wonderful cook. When they had finished eating, she would wash up in the bathroom sink, because the alcove holding the hotplate and mini-refrigerator had no running water. That was kind of a pain but wasn’t forever, she kept reminding herself. And in bed, after they had finished with the sex part, he would tell her stories about his more unusual erotic adventures before he had met her. Rather like Scheherezade in reverse, she thought.

“And you liked that?” she would ask, incredulous but feeling at the same time quite worldly as she heard about these secret, somewhat slimy practices. (Although she certainly would have refused to do such things herself. Thank goodness he never suggested it.)

“Well, yes,” admitted Richard. He curled around her, nestling her back against his chest. We’re like spoons, she thought. That must be why they used to call it ‘spooning.’ She pressed her naked rear more firmly against his naked crotch. This was the coziest thing about being with Richard. She would miss it a lot when she went away to graduate school.

For his birthday in August, Millie bought him a charcoal grey flannel Ivy League-style suit at Bullocks. Being out of season, it was on sale. She might be going away to school soon — by now she was almost sure of it — but he deserved something better than the two terrible polyester suits he had. (They were his entire wardrobe if you didn’t count the worn tweed jacket.) Even on sale, the suit was $75. Millie was making $50 a week, paying a one-third share of the expenses at home, and trying to save at least a little bit, to build up her bank account again. So she knew she shouldn’t have spent this much money on Richard. But she did want him to look nice. And his eyes became wet when he saw what was in the gift-wrapped box. Millie had never seen a man cry. She hugged him. Richard said no one had ever been so kind to him before. After Millie dragged him back to the Bullocks’ tailor to get the cuffs to hang just right — alterations were free — he looked so wonderful in his new suit she also bought him two button-down cotton oxford shirts and a silk rep tie to go with it.

Fat envelopes came in the mail for Millie. She’d been accepted into the English Department doctoral programs at Radcliffe, Columbia, Cornell and the southern California university where Richard taught, to which she’d applied as a back-up. But there was only one offer of a teaching assistantship. From the back-up, where Richard’s recommendation had counted for something. Richard was very pleased for her. “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” he said.

“I’ll miss you,” said April.

“I’ll be right here, in L.A.,” said Millie. “We can still go to movies.”

“It doesn’t work that way,” said April. “Enjoy your life.”

“Oh, for God’s sake, April!” exclaimed Millie. “You’d think we’re never going to see each other!”

But April was right again. There were no more movies. Although they exchanged a few phone calls over the course of the next year, they never managed to get together. It wasn’t until much later when Millie was back in New York with Richard that she realized it. Afterwards, whenever she saw someone wearing a freshly ironed cotton blouse she thought of April, and wondered what had become of her, and if April was wondering the same about her. But by then, there was too much that Millie couldn’t talk about. So she never made a transcontinental call, or wrote.

For a while Patsy and Elena filled April’s place in Millie’s life. Both were also teaching assistants in the university’s English Department. Patsy lived in Pasadena with her parents, the last child in the nest; her two older brothers were married and living elsewhere in California. She had a low sexy voice; it was too bad she still dressed like a high school girl in socks, loafers, pleated skirts and white peter pan dickeys under her slightly pilled lambswool sweaters. Elena was one of two daughters of a Greek magnate with a chain of movie theatres all over Mexico; she spoke Greek, Spanish and fluent English with a very slight lisp. She also wore beautiful slender suits from I. Magnin with handkerchief linen blouses and David Evins pumps. Elena was at first reticent about where she lived but eventually let it be known she was staying with an older sister in a one-bedroom apartment her father had rented for them in a new luxury high-rise. “He wants us to be safe. It’s very secure there,” she explained.

Elena’s family lived in Guadalajara.  “Will you go back there, afterwards?” asked Millie.

“Quien sabe?” Elena said. “Anything can happen.”

“Like what?” asked Millie, fascinated.

Elena clarified. “My father really wants us to return to Greece. The King and Queen are back, but he is very cautious. He says he will wait and see.”  Millie didn’t know that Greece still had a king and queen. She was too busy to follow everything in the world. She just nodded wisely. Patsy nodded, too.

During her first year at the university Millie was also too busy even to think where she might be headed with Richard, or whether she should be headed anywhere at all with a man who had four children. He was just part of her life every Friday and Saturday night. (They had dropped Wednesdays, because of her teaching load. She was also taking five graduate courses for her degree.)

“Do you ever think abut getting married?” she asked the other two near the end of the second year.

“Of course,” said Patsy.

“Not really,” said Elena.

“You’re kidding!”

“I don’t have to think about it,” said Elena. “If I don’t find a good husband on my own by the time I’m twenty-five, my father will find someone.”

“And that’s okay with you?” asked Millie.

“She comes from another culture,” said Patsy.

“It’s not like in India,” explained Elena. “Where you never see the man before the wedding. My father would introduce me to a number of suitable Greek men who had already indicated interest. Perhaps he would host a series of parties. Then they would each take me out. Once or more often, depending. Afterwards my father and I would discuss my preferences. All very civilized. What’s wrong with that?”

Nothing, thought Millie, if the men were young and attractive and rich. It might be nice to have a powerful father like that. To take care of everything.

“And if I didn’t like any of them,” added Elena, “my father would introduce me to more men. My father knows a lot of people.”

Millie was already almost twenty-four. Her father wasn’t going to introduce her to anyone. And there was no one on the horizon even remotely possible. At twenty-five, she would be an old maid.

Richard’s former wife suddenly remarried and moved to Canada with her new husband. She had said nothing about these developments until after the fact. No more alimony!  Richard at once produced an ugly little ring with a tiny ruby that had been his mother’s. What could she do but let him put it on her finger?  If it doesn’t work out, she wrote in her journal the evening before their marriage, we can always divorce in two years.

She finished her course work, took the written and oral exams for the doctoral degree and they moved to New York — where she wrote advertising instead of a dissertation, thereby earning their living, while he wrote unpublishable novels. In the end, it took six years to disentangle herself. Nine years of Richard all together. By then, her twenties were over.

“What a mistake he was,” exclaimed her third husband more than half a century later.

“I was just a baby,” she said. “Didn’t have a clue. You didn’t make mistakes?”  Besides, she thought, that was then. And now is now. And everything is different than it used to be.

It always is.

FIRST HUSBAND (I of II)

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[A story.]

 Richard was thirty and Millie had just turned twenty-one when they met in an introductory television production class he was teaching nights at a large Southern California university. Millie was taking it to be ready when a better job opened up at the television station where she was currently typing stencils of soap opera scripts in the mimeograph department. Only two other women were in the class. One looked to be in her late forties; the other wore a head scarf and came from a Middle Eastern country.

At the end of the first session Richard came over to Millie, asked where she lived and if she had transportation. She said West Hollywood and that she was taking the bus. He offered to drive her home. By the time he pulled up at her front door in his 1937 Plymouth, she knew he was from New York, had been at Harvard, directed university little theater and wanted to write and direct plays on Broadway. He knew she’d come to California with her parents after graduating from Vassar a few months before, was not seeing anyone (“anymore,” she added), missed the East Coast and was unhappy with her job. They’d promised it would be a stepping-stone to editorial work, but she didn’t think she could stand the dreary typing much longer. “We’ll have to find you something more suitable,” he said. Then he asked her out.

She liked his height — important, since she was tall herself. Also his worn tweed jacket and his take-charge attitude about her wretched job. His hands on the steering wheel looked competent. His being the instructor of the class didn’t hurt, either. At college, she’d spent a whole year mooning fruitlessly over a Shakespeare professor who was sending signals he might be interested but never did anything about it. Of course, television production wasn’t Shakespeare, but still…. Richard’s hair and eyes were dark, which was good. Blond blue-eyed men made her think of Gestapo officers in movies. She said yes.

He picked her up after dinner on an evening when he had no class and took her, with apologies, to a prizefight. It was the only live thing on that night, he said, and he hated movies; they got made, went into a can and then you sat in a dark room, long after the actors had gone on to something else, watching dead film stored in a reel and projected on a screen. She herself loved movies, but when he explained that the fight tickets had been free, she allowed herself to be led to a seat, sliding past noisy blue-collar fight fans sloshing beer all over themselves. Unattractive and sweaty small men were slamming each other around in the ring. To her relief, they left before it was over. He parked a block from her house, turned smiling towards her and kissed her over the stick shift.

Oh, he was a wonderful kisser. And it had been so long. She felt herself slipping into bonelessness. His hand moved to her nipple, burning through her sweater. Moisture seeped into the crotch of her panty girdle. He whispered softly in her ear, “Do you mind the back seat?” She pushed him away and sat up straight, flushed and startled. Should she be insulted? “Um, yes, I do.” Did that need explanation? “I’m not as experienced as you think,” she added.

He seemed not to understand this. “Are you a lesbian?” he asked.

Why should he think that?  “I just haven’t had a lot of sexual experience.”

He looked at her in disbelief.  “Experience with intercourse,” she added.

“You’re not a virgin, are you?”

Ah, did she have to answer?   “It’ s complicated,” she offered. “I no longer have my –”  What should she call it? All the words seemed so Victorian. “But my college boyfriend and I, we never …. So I don’t know. How do you define virginity?”

He digested this attempted explanation in silence.

“He was being kind,” she went on. “After he, um, got in, he asked if it hurt when he moved and when I nodded, he said we could wait until next time. Then he, uh, withdrew without, you know….”

I shouldn’t need to tell him this, she thought. But she had already begun and couldn’t leave it there. “Afterwards we were together only one other time, in a hotel. He lost it there because I was nervous and laughed. That’s when we broke up. He said something was wrong with me. I think he was wrong about that, though.”  This was not entirely true. She was certain he would have had less trouble with another more spontaneous girl. “It was his first time, too. So he probably just didn’t know how.”

“All this was when?” asked Richard thoughtfully.

“About two years ago.”

“And after that?”

“Vassar’s just for girls.” She didn’t mention the Shakespeare professor.

“I’m sure there’s nothing wrong with you,” he said, patting her hand. “We’d better forget about the back seat, though.”

She felt soiled by her disclosure. But the following week in class, he winked at her while she was sprinkling Ivory Snow in front of a photograph of an Alpine village being filmed by another student. And afterwards, he drove her home again to the same place a block from where she lived, where he again kissed her enthusiastically. She was so relieved they seemed to be back on track that she giggled and said flirtatiously, “Oh, Richard, here we are kissing madly away and I don’t know the first thing about you. Why, you could be married with three children!”

To which he responded gravely: “Actually, I am married. And I have four.

And all Millie could think when she heard that – she who had been described by the Shakespeare professor in his final report as having “a mind like a steel trap” — all she could think was, “Well, he’s done it at least four times. He will know how.”

He did know how. He demonstrated his knowledge in a studio apartment opposite Paramount Studios that rented for $50 a month. Millie dipped into her small savings account to give him the first month’s rent — but only because he explained that Winifred was going back to Texas for a divorce in a few weeks, as soon as the baby was old enough to travel. Then he could stop paying rent on the house they were all living in and take over the rent of the studio. Besides, she thought of the $50 as an investment in her own sexual education.

She brought new sheets and pillowcases to their assignation in the apartment. He brought a couple of bottles of Schlitz, a package of Trojans and a tube of K-Y jelly. He asked if she wanted a drink before they went to bed. To loosen up. She said, truthfully, she didn’t like beer. (It gave her gas. This information she kept to herself.) So they pulled the Murphy bed down from the wall, made it up with her new sheets and cases, took off their clothes and climbed in without the beer. Not exactly the “first time” she had dreamed of. But this was real life and she had to stop dreaming. Besides, once she had learned everything he had to teach, she was going to leave him for someone more suitable.

Afterwards, she had very little memory of what transpired their first evening in the studio other than that he accomplished what they both had wanted, it had hurt some but not too much, and there had been no blinding explosion of joy. But she did like the kissing, touching and finger work. And he assured her that in a week or so, it wouldn’t feel tight or sore.

He was good as his word about the soreness, and also the rent. After the Murphy bed had come down from the wall a few more times, it didn’t hurt at all. And Winifred soon packed up their children and belongings and drove away to San Antonio, whereupon he moved into the studio with his clothes, papers and typewriter, and took over the monthly $50.

Blinding joy, however, remained elusive. He propped her on pillows. He stroked, slavered, and pumped away — dripping perspiration all over her. She would have faked it, if only to bring his moist exertions to an end (she did not enjoy the drops of sweat), except she didn’t know what to fake. Then he said getting rid of the rubbers might help, and got her the name of a gynecologist who reputedly had no objection to supplying unmarried girls with diaphragms. It was an embarrassing visit; when actually face to face with the doctor she had colored the truth by claiming to be engaged. But she came away equipped with a rimmed rubber barrier to conception nestled in a pretty blue plastic case, instructions for insertion and removal while sitting on the toilet, and the doctor’s congratulations on her engagement. She kept the diaphragm, spermicidal jelly, and a container of baby powder to dust it off with afterwards in Richard’s bathroom medicine cabinet, lest her mother discover any of these objects at home.

Still nothing doing in the joy department.

He found her another job, writing advertising copy for misses’ fashions at The Broadway Department Store, which paid more than typing stencils and came with a 20% employee discount. Then he found another 1937 Plymouth in which she could drive to work. Priced at $125 it was a steal, he said.

“Who is this man?” asked her mother the first time she parked noisily at the curb. Millie tried to explain, leaving out the sex part, but Harvard did not help and Richard not being Jewish was the least of it. “How many children?” asked her father. She began driving to meet Richard instead of having him pick her up. Whenever she left the house in the evening, her mother looked stricken and sighed mournfully.

Millie sent a jolly birthday card to her old college boyfriend in New York, whom she had not seen since their hotel debacle — including an upbeat report on her new job, car and man. He wrote back with gratifying promptitude that it was great to hear from her and she should get her ass back to New York right away because he was sure Richard, age thirty, was not the man for her. He was jealous! But what was he proposing? On closer scrutiny of his letter, not much. So what would she do in New York? Where would she stay? With what would she buy a ticket (perhaps, to be safe, a round-trip ticket), now that her spare cash had gone towards her own sexual education and the Plymouth? While she was reflecting on these problematic matters, the old college boyfriend wrote again to announce he was marrying a certain Celia, also from Vassar but several years older than Millie (meaning more sexually with it, thought Millie) and — a final humiliation! — they would love to see Millie at the wedding.

She was defective. She was sure if her sexual organs had worked the way they were supposed to, so she and the college boyfriend could have climaxed together, as in her thumb-eared copy of Van de Velde’s Ideal Marriage, he wouldn’t now be marrying this smirking older woman and leaving her to seek crumbs of comfort in a squeaky Murphy bed where she might never dissolve in ecstasy.

God helps those who help themselves, Millie told herself sternly. A few nights later, she bought a pint of cheap wine at Thrifty Drug on the way home from work, stuffed it into her capacious handbag and hid it under her pillow until it was time for bed.

It took forty-five minutes of rubbing herself with spit (she checked her bedside clock when she had finished) — growing so hot that whatever she was feeling could hardly be called pleasure — until she finally managed with the underside of her stiffened left index finger to trigger a small deep centered thrill beneath the heat, a delicious little thrill that mounted and mounted in intensity until she couldn’t hold it back, it came on in spite of her, like a huge wave rising, rising and o-h-h-h-h-h-h….o-h-h-h-h-h-h….o-h-h-h-h-h-h…. So that was how it was! What else could it be? She had done it! She had brought herself off! She was so elated she wanted to send a telegram: Stop the wedding!

She wasn’t that crazy, though. And once she knew what was supposed to happen, she did feel more confident when she visited Richard, even if she could never describe for him exactly the location of the spot where the small deep thrill lay waiting because it seemed to keep moving around. However, she eagerly stretched her legs apart, this way and that, to reach for it, that tiny marvelously quivering core of unbelievable pleasure, and began to enjoy herself in bed.

But did she love him? She asked her sometime journal that very question. She also tried calling him “my darling” within the privacy of its pages. It looked wrong when she read it back. He wasn’t her darling. Celia had her darling — well, her former darling. Richard was just her experienced married lover, who had hardly any money because he was sending almost all of it to Texas, and a rotten wardrobe except for the worn tweed jacket, and — as she was beginning to discover — a somewhat elastic conception of truth.

For instance: When he’d said he was from New York, he meant Syracuse, New York. When he’d said he was at Harvard, he meant after his marriage and only for one year, as a graduate student. Then he’d transferred out; his degree was from somewhere in the midwest. (And his undergraduate degree was from Clark, wherever that was.) He hadn’t written a play since graduate school. What he seemed to be working on now was a novel about his boyhood love of baseball that she, the literature major, thought so sloppy in its writing as to be hopeless. She offered to edit it for him, but after she had laboriously marked up the first chapter, he snapped at her that if she was going to take a schoolmarm approach to a work of genius he didn’t need her help thank you very much.

As for his looks, well, yes, he was considered handsome. (Her supervisor at The Broadway, a snippy unmarried woman who had to be at least thirty-five, actually cooed over his photograph.) However, stripped of his clothing…. Ah, that was another matter. His shoulders were narrow.  He had a large mole in the center of his back that she disliked. (She tried to keep her fingers away from it when she had to clasp his damp body to her.) Worst of all was the uncircumcised penis, which she hadn’t noticed as different in any way when it was ready for business but featured an excess of unpleasant foreskin when not, so that going down on him was like mouthing a quantity of crumpled rag.

At the end of the semester, Richard gave her an A plus in the television production course even though she’d stopped coming to class after leaving the television station job. Then he went away to attend the divorce hearing in San Antonio and help Winifred find a permanent place to live. (She and the children had been staying “here and there,” he said.) He’d be gone a month, until the spring term began. Millie was glad. When her mother noticed she wasn’t going out evenings, she announced she had given him up. Her mother told her father. With the advice and assistance of his mechanic, her father bought her a nice blue 1946 Chevrolet sedan previously owned by a little old lady in Pasadena who only drove it to church on Sundays. Then he helped sell her noisy Plymouth “as is” for $75. The Plymouth barely made it up a hill into the buyer’s driveway. She and her father made their getaway in his 1952 Pontiac before the buyer returned from work.

It’s not as if Millie didn’t know right from wrong, smart from stupid. But the month without Richard was so boring. She would come home from work in the Chevrolet for dinner with her parents and have to hear her father tell, between mouthfuls, what had been in the headlines that day. His jaws moved vigorously as he chewed; she could see the bones of his skull roll beneath the sides of his forehead. After he had finished his one scoop of coffee ice milk (her mother was trying to keep him on a diet), Millie would help put away the leftover pot roast or broiled chicken and dry the dishes. “Thank you, Ludmilochka,” her mother would say. “Now maybe I can relax a little with the paper myself.” Then Millie would go to her room to lie down on her bed and turn pages of public library books the contents of which she had trouble remembering even while she was still reading them. Saturdays she spent with April, the other junior copywriter, with whom she shared a small office. April was Millie’s age, a recent UCLA graduate who also lived at home, although with her mother and grandmother. You couldn’t discuss books with April — she spent her evenings ironing blouses — but she was someone to go to movies with. Once Millie made the mistake of staying at April’s house for dinner after driving her home; they had to watch The Arthur Godfrey Show with April’s mother and grandmother afterwards.

April didn’t see why Millie should give up seeing Richard before someone better came along. “Believe me, it’s no fun having no one in your life,” she said.

“Even though I told my mother it’s over?” Millie asked.

April shrugged. “What she doesn’t know won’t hurt her, will it?”

[To be concluded in next post.]